Sweating bullets in the Nashville heat and overwhelmed by the bustling showfloor at Summer NAMM 2017, I had the good fortune of meeting up with Mr. Matthew Farrow at the Disaster Area/Alexander Pedals booth. Alexander Pedals had a smorgasbord of exciting products new and old splayed across the table, but chief among them was this little GameBoy they were calling the Syntax Error. Eager to see what all the fuss was about, I (somewhat blithely) blurted out, “What does it do?” Smooth, right? Matthew’s response was something like, “The question is, ‘what doesn’t it do?’” Bold implication, but fast-forward to December, and I’m still having a tough time answering that question. I’ve never heard anything quite like the Syntax Error. I’d love to just label it a multi-effects pedal and call it a day, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Gratuitous gut-shot just because
- Four Modes:
Stretch: 2 Second Buffer “delay” with reverse repeats
Cube: Cubic distortion with band-pass filter
Ring: LFO-affected Ring Mod
Freq: Bode-styled Frequency shifter
- Modes cycled via low-profile alt button
- Four knobs control six parameters when holding the center alt button: Tweak, Code, Mix (Level,) Sample (Bonus.)
- 9V Power input
- Buffered Bypass
- Instrument or Line level Mono input
- TRS Stereo Output
- 16 programmable presets via bypass switch or MIDI input
- Multijack input for Expression, Footswitch, or MIDI control
- USB Mini-B input for firmware updates, MIDI, or TouchOSC controls
Sound & Performance:
True to its title, this “Audio Computer System” flexes some hilariously bulbous digital muscles, utilizing a 32 bit micro-controller to process four intricate digital effects plus the choice of MIDI, CV, or expression pedal control that you might fancy. There’s a relatively new industry trend where forward-thinking builders have begun moving toward more Eurorack-ish and synth-friendly effects, and the Syntax Error exhibits this thought process in a very on-the-nose sort of way. The inclusion of a frequency shifter, which in the guitar world is not unheard of by any stretch, but certainly rare, is one good example. The parameters on this thing are also a tweaker’s El Dorado; the touchy knobs ensure that each micrometer of movement changes its designated parameter greatly. This is often the function of some of the parameters having a complete cutoff at around 9 o’clock, but even in the case of the Code knob on Stretch mode (which is fully active on the full sweep of the knob,) you really have to listen and zone in on what you’re playing with to get the desired effect. Digital pots are sweet. Through the use of certain MIDI devices (like the Disaster Area DMC-4,) you can even achieve ramping of any of the Syntax Error’s parameters via the red-ringed ¼” Multijack input OR the Mini-B USB input, which opens up a whole new world of interactivity. This is one of those pedals that plays with itself, each component of a given mode feeding into the gestalt in evolving ways but also remaining completely independent of the other parts that make it possible. It’s also the kind of pedal that can sit comfortably in a few places in your signal chain, whether it be right after your most conventional overdrive or between a delay and reverb.
I can’t deny that the key to the Syntax Error’s surface game is the Sample knob, as it not only lends itself wholly to the “Dawn of the Information Age” aesthetic it has going on, but it’s also the difference between calling the Syntax Error a vanilla multi-effects pedal and calling it a glitch in the Matrix. While the other knobs’ parameters vary from mode to mode, the Sample knob remains static, adding that sample rate reduction to any of the four modes.
DISCLAIMER: If you’re looking for a clean reverse delay, look elsewhere. Seriously, close this page and research something a little more hygienic. Stretch’s reverse repeats will leave you feeling the need for a hot shower.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about this piece of work.
Stretch mode sends your signal through a buffer whose speed is determined by the Code knob. If you’ve ever imported a song into a DAW and changed the buffer rate, that’s kind of what you’re getting here, albeit chopped up into delay-like repeats to function in real time. The buffer stretches your signal from normal speed all the way down to reverse, and everything in between. Clockwise will increase the sampled signal up to 2 seconds; counter-clockwise, down to near nought. Everywhere between full CW and CCW, the signal is intermittently pitch-shifted to accommodate the altered buffer. The Bonus knob (accessed by holding the center Alt. button) controls the feedback of the repeats. It won’t self oscillate, but with Code at around two o’clock, it will feed your already buffered signal back into the buffer, pushing it further down into lower-octave hell. The sample-rate reducer controlled by the the Sample knob is actually fed into the buffer at the same time your signal rate is, as opposed to being laid over the top of the whole thing, so the sound of your bits being crushed are replayed in the repeats as well.
You can create all sorts of weird rhythmic patterns with this mode, benefitting from the weirdness of the buffered signal interjecting violently at what appears to be random intervals. There is a slight haptic pop when the sample resets, which at first is annoying, but after playing for a while becomes a part of its rhythmic charm. There’s also an ultra weird spot at noon on Code where all logic breaks down and your signal becomes caught in what I can only describe as a quantum uncertainty in whether it wants to speed up or slow down, so it just stops working normally, sputtering digital nonsense. It’s still locked into the Buffer length set by the Tweak knob, though, so it’ll jump in and out of this Schrödinger state at a set tempo, which is great for grimy sounding beats. Stretch really shines when used in conjunction with huge reverbs and volume swells, adding its own depth and weirdness when you get a wash going. I happened to use the OBNE Dark Star to generate a pad, then added in the Syntax Error’s reversed flavor to create a pitch-black evil sounding beat. Spooky as hell.
Filtered fuzz! A classic means to a critical lead role, loved by guitarists and synth aficionados alike. Alexander has chosen to mathematically simulate a thick digital fuzz through a sacred mathematical equation passed down via lightning bolt from on high by the Lords of Riff: (abs(INPUT^3))^3. You don’t have to understand it to know that it means business, but my guess is that Cube takes the absolute value of your signal (abs,) does something to it by a factor of three, and then takes the whole enchilada and blows it up by a factor of three again. My head hurts. At any rate, Cube is a cubic distortion (a term when Googled mostly yielded more math,) run through a band-pass filter. Alexander has acknowledged that this is as close as we get to a “normal” effect in the Syntax Error, which is true only in the sense that normal has long been dragged into the recycle bin, right-clicked, and henceforth been deleted forever. Here the Syntax Error’s Code knob works double duty as both gain and mix, Tweak as the sweep of the filter, and Bonus serving as the resonance of the filter. Sample is a powerful tool that adds the last bit of dirt you may be missing in the off chance you don’t want to go full cubic. Used in conjunction with an expression pedal, you can achieve crazy filter sweeps that evokes the digital facsimile of a wah. There’s a pretty significant amount of noise here, but that’s likely due to the exponential increase in signal output, and therefore, an exponential increase of the noise floor. Besides, it’s a fuzz, and fuzzes get messy.
The Ring mode is built around a super neat concept that takes a wide-range ring modulator and runs it through a sample and hold LFO for a complex back and forth of dispatch noises. I initially thought that the sample and hold was a filter that the ring mod passed through, but in this case the LFO modulates the frequency of the ring mod. Code determines the rate of the LFO, Tweak becomes the frequency of the ring mod. On the lower frequencies, the ring mod behaves like a tremolo, and with the LFO active, you get a jittery variable-speed trem. Bonus is an EQ on the wet signal, making the Freq voicing more viable as an atmospheric element rather than a blanket effect on the whole frequency spectrum. This is especially important if you have plans to play over a dial-up tone, rather than inside the AOL mainframe.
If we’re going to talk about the Freq voice we have to discuss the Bode frequency shifters that inspired it. You see, a frequency shifter offsets the frequencies it draws from your dry signal by adding or subtracting hertz and detuning the harmonics. This effect shouldn’t be confused with pitch shifting, which is a function of multiplying the harmonics of the signal to more or less move along a logical intervallic line. Though the functions in this application can be construed as similar, a frequency shifter does not necessarily preserve the harmonic content of your signal. In buzzwords, the Freq mode is equipped to produce barberpole flanging textures, cascading pitch-shifts, and all-around weird vibes.
In Alexander’s take, Code serves as a compass for the wet signal’s frequency shift, pitching the target frequency up or down, and relying heavily on the feedback (Tweak) to determine how deeply the shift affects the overall signal. Alexander has added a delay rate control (Bonus) to the mix, allowing you to control when the affected signal kicks in. This mode was built for flangey/phasey wackiness, the ascending or descending frequencies of your input signal generating crazy Star Trek sounds. Held notes will constantly trigger the feedback cycle, generating consistent discord, but plucked and muted notes send the spiral downward with a discernible start and end point. With the feedback dialed back just shy of ten o’clock, the frequency shift stops before it gets really rolling and Freq almost becomes a disharmonic slapback delay.
Error Code – 404
There wasn’t really much about the Syntax error that I didn’t enjoy. This isn’t so much a complaint as a matter of fact, but I should note that the Syntax Error may best be served always-on in a loop on an effects switcher as activating/bypassing it does cut the signal briefly. It doesn’t appear to support tap tempo which would be nice for the Stretch and Freq modes, but I can look past that as the otherwise full MIDI implementation means I can just sync MIDI CC’s when I build my presets. All-in-all, I’d say the Syntax Error is a triumph.
The Alexander Pedals Syntax Error is a fresh uncommon means to achieve fresh uncommon tones, all in a small, decked out enclosure. It had me feeling like I’d been shot by a laser and converted into a .exe file. The sheer volume of features and interesting yet practical sounds packed into this thing demonstrates not just Alexander’s commitment to Do(ing) Good with Great Tone but also their unprecedented aptitude in doing just that. Furthermore, the prospect of potential firmware updates seems to imply that there’s still so much that Alexander can do to expand on not just the Syntax Error but the NEO series and the way each installation interacts with the others. That makes an investment in the Syntax Error one that’s almost guaranteed to increase in value over time. In other words, pick one of these up and you’ll be throwing your power disk into the MPC’s stupid face in no time. Okay, that was my last nerdy reference.
That concludes our review of the Alexander Pedals Syntax Error. Thanks for reading!